What To Expect When Visiting a Turkish Bath or Hamam?

The Turkish Bath or Hamam of Cemberlitas in Istanbul

by Erlend Geerts

in Sightseeing

Before you can decide whether you hate or love going to a Turkish bath or hamam, you need to experience it at least once. If it’s your first visit to a hamam, entering a Turkish bath can be a daunting experience. By describing my last visit to the Çemberlitaş Hamamı, you will get a nice impression of the Turkish bath process and customs, so you know what to expect.

Selecting a Hamam and Service

First you need to decide whether you want to visit a historical hamam or a hotel Turkish bath. Next, upon entering the establishment, you have to select and pay for the service of your choice. The options are:

  • Self-Service — you bathe yourself and bring your own soap, shampoo and towel. This is obviously the cheapest option and will cost you around 55 TL. I wouldn’t recommend this for your first visit.
  • Traditional Style — pick this one if you want the real Turkish bath experience. An attendant will wash and massage you for about 15 minutes, and you don’t have to bring any of the equipment. This service will set you back for about 80 TL.
  • Other Styles — The have several other services such as aromatherapy oil massage, reflexology, Indian head massage, and facial clay mask, too. Please check their website if you are interested in those.

Regardless of the service you choose, you are allowed to use the facilities for as long as you wish. I picked the traditional style service, was handed a carton box containing a new scrubber and led into the camekan — a splendid entrance hall with several stories of wooden cubicles.

The camekan or entrance hall of Çemberlitaş Hamamı in Istanbul.

The camekan or entrance hall and cubicals.

An attendant guided me to a personal dressing cubicle (some just have lockers) on the first floor, and gave me sandals and a peştemal — a colorful checked cloth to be tied around the waist for modesty.

Will I Be Bare Naked?

Yes and no. There is some strict hamam etiquette to be followed. For starters, there is no mixing! Either the Turkish bath has two sections, one for each sex, or it admits men and women at separate times of the day.

Men usually completely strip down and wear nothing underneath the bath-wrap. Make sure you remain clothed with the bath wrap at all times — flashing is frowned upon. Women on the other hand mostly keep on wearing their underwear ( but often not their bra) underneath the bath-wrap. The choice is yours.

So I undressed, donned the peştemal and slipped into the sandals. Afterwards I locked the door, took the key together with the scrubber and went back downstairs where my masseur led me through the soğukluk (the cooling down room) into the hararet (the hot room).

Bath Procedure

The masseur didn’t follow me into the hot room. First you need to relax and loosen up for a while, and most importantly sweat! A great time to explore the architecture of a Turkish bath. In most cases an impressive room completely covered in marble featuring a big dome, several basins and an impressive göbektaşı — the central, raised platform above the heating source.

After 15 minutes of sitting and lying on the göbektaşı, the masseur entered the room. The first part of the service took place on the side of the central platform, while shifting positions all the time. The attendant soaked my body with warm water and lathered me with a sudsy swab. At the same time, being all slippery and wet, I received the massage. The words “no pain – no gain” flashed through my mind on some occasions. Probably the reason why “most masseurs are men of few words but many pounds”, as Michael Palin put nicely.

Getting a massage and scrub in the Cemberlistas Hamam in Istanbul.

Getting a massage and scrub.

After the washing up and massage, it was time for the scrubbing. The place of action was shifted from the central platform to one of the basins. The attendant took the modern synthetic equivalent of the original Oriental hand-knitted wash cloth out of its carton box, and started scrubbing – or should I say sandpapering – my body.

After being embarrassed by the amount of dirt I had on me (although I shower at least once a day), I received another soapy wash up followed by a rinsing session with … cold water!

Cooling Down

This concluded the 15 minute service. The masseur left the hot room, but you can stay and relax some more if you want to. I decided to stay a bit longer before moving to the cold or intermediate room. This room also houses the showers and toilets, which were spotlessly clean. I was handed a new, dry bath-wrap and a towel before heading for the showers.

Afterwards, I went back to my cubicle. Some visitors decide to relax a bit on the bed first, order a drink or even take a nap. In case of the latter, tell the attendant when he should wake you up. But since I had been in there for over an hour by then, I got dressed and tipped/thanked my masseur on the way back down. I felt great and extremely clean.

Some More Tips

  • Hamams are open from as early as 6 a.m. till somewhere around midnight
  • The masseur and scrubber will be of the same sex as you are
  • Standard soap is used. If you have sensitive skin or are allergic to some products, bring your own soap
  • You need to wash your private parts yourself
  • You’ll get drenched, so women may want to get rid of their make-up first. Also, don’t forget to bring the necessary toiletries.
  • Women may want to bring dry underwear along too
  • There is no way you can avoid tipping the attendant(s), so make sure you have some cash money on you. You normally tip 10 to 20% of the total amount
  • If you care about your (new) tan, maybe visit a hamam at the beginning of your city trip or holiday

Photo Source 1 & 2

What's Next

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

MEISSOUN April 26, 2011 at 12:58 pm

I have visited various hamams in Istanbul. Women in general sit around totally naked.
Seeing tourists wearing bikini briefs is always a bit strange…
What is scrubbed off your body is usually not much dirt but mostly dead skin.
Avoid the big touristy hamams, they are a rip-off!

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Erlend Geerts May 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm

Hi Meissoun,

thanks a lot for your comment. I’m afraid I will have to agree, but also disagree a bit.

I obviously never personally visited the woman’s section of a hamam, but asked local women in my circle of friends to make sure. And they all pointed out that being completely naked is definitely not the rule. Some hamams even provide throw-away briefs to wear under the peştemal or bath-wrap.

However, you are absolutely right that wearing bikinis or tops is not what local women normally do. Besides, without taking the bikini off, you can’t enjoy a proper scrub — to get rid of the dead skin.

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Charlie Warda May 18, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Hi, I’ve been to Çemberlitaş Hamamı, in the past but am looking for a less touristy bath to visit, whcih as you’ve said isnt sucha rip-off. Any suggestions ? Thanks

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Erlend Geerts May 20, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Hi Charlie,

Actually, Çemberlitaş Hamamı is not a rip-off. Plenty of my local friends have a membership card there since they go there often for their excellent service and quality. Having said that, as an unaware tourist they may not give you the full treatment yet charge the same.

If you really want the local experience (and be the only tourist) there is one on a side street of Istiklal Caddesi. I don’t remember the name, neither have I ever visited myself.

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mindy June 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm

Thank you for your detailed description. I beg to differ with you, though, when you say “there is no mixing!” I recently went to a hamam in Urgup, just outside of Cappadocia and not only were my husband and I in the same room, but he and I both had male “washers!” Whoa–that was quite an experience!! Since noone really spoke English very well, there was no way for me to know this beforehand. The guidebook was pretty vague about this as well, as were the people at the inn where we stayed. It was certainly something we will be speaking about for years to come, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but never say never.

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Erlend Geerts June 3, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Well Mindy, I can’t vouch for Cappadocia, but the established hamams in Istanbul are strictly men or women only.

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falcon291 February 20, 2014 at 11:10 am

Traditional Turkish hamams are all segregated and frequented by the locals. The hamam you visited in Cappadocia, is not a traditional hamam, but rather a tourist attraction.

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Nancy June 15, 2012 at 3:15 am

Hi Erlend,

What time of the day did you go? Was it too crowded?

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Erlend Geerts June 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm

I went around 18:00. I was all alone at first, then some more joined. It’s rarely too crowded.

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Stacey Schacter July 5, 2012 at 10:11 pm

This is wonderful and thanks for the post. We were wary about going since when we read reviews of the same facilities some were great while others complained about the masseurs constantly asking for tips. We are going to give it a try and will try to follow up with a post.

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Erlend Geerts July 10, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Thanks a lot Stacey. Looking forward to read about your experiences.

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Barry Klein July 24, 2012 at 10:01 am

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
This was an interesting experience. The men are treated far better than the women. As a man, I was guided up stairs to a private changing relaxing room. My wife was taken to a common locker room. Both of us felt rushed, but I still enjoyed it. The attendant told me that I needed to tip him and in fact, he waited for me to exit where I gave him 7.5 TL

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Eric C August 21, 2012 at 11:00 am

I am off to Voyager Golf & Courty Spa in Belek later this year for some Golf and I would like to try the Turkish Bath but I am not sure what kind of service you would receive in a Holiday Resort – I have been there before and the place, service and food is fabulous but was a bit weary of having a first ever Turkish Bath
Should I go for it and what would I expect to pay

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Erlend Geerts August 23, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Hi Eric,

If you’ve been there before and they live up the typical Golf & Country Golf clubs, I wouldn’t have any hesitations to give it a try. It may not be the real thing, but you’ll get close. As for prices, you’ll have to ask them.

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Lisa F October 24, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I can really recommend having the Hamam at the Voyage in Belek. The best part for us was that my husband, myself and my son (aged 7) together with our friends who we were away with and their son (also 7) all got to experience the Turkish Bath together. The boys didn’t get the massage that the adults did but they did have the soapy exfoliation treatment. We all wore swimwear and I had a woman do my treatment. It didn’t ‘take my tan off’ even though we did the treatment on our last night in the hotel, in fact it made my tan better as the dead skin layer was gone. I think it cost about 90 Euro for the three of us, and we were there over an hour. I think if I went back for two weeks, I’d have one the first day and one the last day. It was fantastic!

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David October 7, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Hi All,

Having visited many hammams around Turkey (including in Avenos, Cappadocia), I would have to agree that, for the experience, Cemberlitas should not be passed up. However, the best I have had was the medium-size hammam (coed!) just outside of Marmaris. If you are nearby, dont miss it.

Enjoy

David

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M Rosel October 19, 2012 at 5:40 am

For the location and recommendation, we (with my sister and our friend) went to Ayasofya Hamami. Boy, it was pricey but well worth it! It was our splurge, but the whole experience just left us like we were some royalty in a bygone era. You do get naked – just swallow your embarrassment, and let the ladies take care of you. The whole place was just beautiful…and divine!

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Erlend Geerts October 19, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Hi Miss Rosel,

Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

Erlend

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Eric C November 7, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Well following on from my earlier post, I am back from the Voyager, Belek – I did go for a back massage and it was fantastic – I have always had a lower back and shoulder problem which tends to tighten up the more I play golf, however, the Girl who carried out the massage homed right in on these weaknesses, work the oracle on me and after the half hour session I felt absolutely fantastic, more pliable and good and ready to give that wee ball a bit of wellie – anyway the day before I was leaving I went back and had a second session and it was just as good if not better than the first, so any time I am in Turkey massage it is.

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ESL November 23, 2012 at 5:00 pm

This is a terrific website, and wonderful advice, I am completing a trip to Istanbul, I leave tomorrow in the afternoon, but I tell you, 8 days ain’t enough. So much to see, and I have seen much but this place is absolutely intoxicating.

I just went to Cemberlitas today and it was awesome, it took me about 30 minutes to come down from the experience, as my jello-like body stumbled out of there.

And thanks for this post, I used this post as a guide, as it was the first time in a hamam. The only thing that differs from my experience, is that after laying on the marble, the masseur used the kese first, then he did the soapy massage, and cracked my back a few times.

While sandpapering me, he showed me the dead skin, as it was being taken off. After we finished in the big room, he then took me to the other area where he gave me another soapy massage. Then I could take a long shower and I tried to see if there was any dead skin left on me. There wasn’t.

As far as tipping and such, the masseuse I had told me , “only me, downstairs”. Cumulatively, I gave 20%. You are allowed to take as long as you want to rest and dress. I gave the towel guy 2TL and my masseuse 12TL. A little much? Don’t know and honestly don’t care. It was a really worthwhile experience.

Thanks for this website, and I know I will be back in Istanbul soon.

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Erlend Geerts November 23, 2012 at 11:43 pm

Hi ESL,

Thanks a lot for taking the time to share your experience in so much detail. I really appreciate that.

You’re right, there is no road book that hamam personnel have to follow. Every experience is different. This is based on the amount of people in the hamam, the person attending you, and your own personality.

As for your tipping question, well … tipping is basically your token of appreciation in hamams, restaurants, cafés, hotel service, etc. People say you should tip minimum this and that. Sure, those are courtesy rules. But I regularly find myself in situations where I don’t tip at all when I was neglected or service was bad (they didn’t deserve it), or tip much more because they went the extra mile to please me.

Enjoy the rest of your stay,
Erlend

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Trinne December 21, 2012 at 5:15 am

From what i saw on youtube,
Women get bathed by men also. I saw this video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od871WHPA9k

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Erlend Geerts December 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Hi Trinne,

This video is shot in a hotel, where they have their own policies. But in public hamams you would have a hard time finding mixed gender bathing spots.

Erlend

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Amir April 6, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Really informative

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Erlend Geerts April 8, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Thanks a lot Amir.

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Cynthia June 8, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Hi Erlend,

I will be in IST for a days and plan to attend on a Sunday morning, will they be open and are reservations recommended?
I am on business trip and will be on my own, will a single woman be unwelcome?
Thanks for the page!

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Erlend Geerts June 9, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Hi Cybthia,

Sure, they will be open. Check their website(s) for details. The hamam has separate rooms for men and women, so being a woman alone will not be a problem at all.

Kind regards,
Erlend

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ray July 10, 2013 at 10:58 am

hi thanks for information. i would like to know if there is hammam for gay in istanbul?

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Erlend Geerts July 10, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Hi Ray,

Maybe you can have a look at this link from Istanbul Gay.

Erlend

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Jerry Matheny July 11, 2013 at 6:04 pm

I just went to cemberlitas two days ago. I have been excited about going for many years. I was greatly disappointed. The services I paid for should have taken an hour and a half I was pushed through and ordered around so quickly I was back in my hotel room less than an hour after I left. I did not tip. The soap massage was truly the most painful experience. I think I need to find a different place that is more concerned about quality than quantity and not so insistent on making sure I tip. I will tip if the experience is good. I will not pay to be hurt.

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Erlend Geerts July 13, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Hi Jerry,

Sorry to hear about your experience. Thanks for sharing.

Erlend

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H July 21, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Do you get to keep the pestemel on during the the scrub down and massage?

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Erlend Geerts July 22, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Yes you do.

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Bilal July 25, 2013 at 8:45 am

Hi Erlend,

Hope you are well. Me and wife really want to go for a Turkish Bath but we also have a two year old child and the only way of getting it done is by taking turns. Do you know of any hammam which might have a baby care option.

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Erlend Geerts July 26, 2013 at 11:43 am

Hi Bilal,

Not that I’m aware of, at least not in the traditional hamams. Hotels may provide such a service. But you can’t really go together anyway, you’ll be in separate rooms, so taking turns should be OK.

Kind regards,
Erlend

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Layale September 5, 2013 at 11:23 pm

Hi, I would like to thank you for your recommendation about the cemberlitas hamam, I took my Mom there and it was nice. The massage was amazing but the bath was a bit disappointing.It was too quick and not very efficient.We enjoyed the experience and the cleanliness of the place and it was very easy to find.How ever, the prices are more now, it’s 70 tl for the professional one and 137 tl for the luxury one.

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Judy October 3, 2013 at 3:43 pm

THE LADIES SIDE
I went to Çemberlitaş Hamamı Sept 20, 2013 while visiting Istanbul on a cruise. I had seen the beautiful mosques and other sights on previous visits and wanted to try a bath this time. The bus/above ground subway (not sure what it is called) can be caught a short walk from where we were docked. My friend had gotten the tokens (not sure where) and the ride was 1 TL … about 50 cents each way. You get 2 blocks from the hamam.
I opted for a full treatment….. the scrub bath and a 1/2 hour oil massage…. cost was about $65 – 70. US. You are given a small bag with panties and scrub washcloth. Then we were lead to one of many small dressing and locker rooms. My friend and I were lead to the same one but I noticed others going to different ones. I had brought a bra along but the women workers were mainly middle aged with the common middle age spread (like me :) )wearing their black panties and loose bras, so I didn’t feel too uncomfortable just wearing the panties and wrap. My friend is heavier and the towel wrap wouldn’t cover her but she was prepared by bringing a cotton pareo. We stored our clothes and shoes in our locked, took the key, found sandals our size from a basket and were ready to go.
We were lead to the hot room and had our wraps spread out on the huge marble pedestal-like surface centered in the large room and laid down. We went late morning and there were other women there… mostly tourists, enjoying their first bath experience as well. Out of the ten others.. only one with a bra. Many there just soaking up the warmth and later would bathe themselves. The room is very warm as is the pedestal and you lay there for about 20 mins. There are marble basins on the walls with metal pans that you could fill with water to cool off if needed. Your pores all open up and you are perspirering freely and relax by looking up to the high domed stone ceiling filled with holes letting light shafts through. I did find it a bit uncomfortable laying on the hard surface but would shift positions and turn over, sit up, go to the water basins and splash.

Soon a women comes and had you move to a different area of the pedestal and the scrubbing commenced. Not hard ar all, just felt very good especially on the back. Lots of dead skin is shed, including some of your tan :) Pans of water were used to rinse you off then it’s time for the bubbles. A bag full of bubbles was squeezed all over you. It made me smile. You are rubbed again even sitting up on the pedestal as she raises up your arm to wash that and your side.

Next you go to an area with a basins, sit down on a marble ledge and your hair gets shampooed. Your head and whole body are rinsed with plenty of pans of water. After you that, you can go back and sweat some more but I went to the cooling pool. Actually one larger pool with water flowing in and a smaller one the size of a large hot tub. I went in the larger one where a few other women sat on the ledges on the sides. I back floated looking up and another dome and closed my eyes and totally relaxed.

I took my jellied body to the next area to await my massage. Other women there waiting also, some in a facial masks. The oil massage was in a room with other massage tables but I was the only one there. There were more rooms upstairs where others were taken. You were covered with a sheet and different areas exposed that were to be massaged… just like normal. Felt good but at times I almost want to say ‘yikes, go easy’ as she rubbed a thumb along a muscle but it would stop in time.

Afterwards I went in the lobby where my friend was waiting. We had some apple tea then went up to the locker area and changed. We each went back and gave our massager $5 each US and put $3 each in shared tip box for the washer.

I’ve never been to other hamans so I have nothing to compare it to. You could stay as long as you wanted in any place you were at… except on the massage table of course. Never felt rushed, never felt uncomfortable about my lack of clothing or ever asked to tip. What a great experience and would love to indulge myself every month!! Nearly two weeks later and my skin is still smooth!

Afterwards we walked the few blocks to the Grand Bazaar and caught the bus/subway back to the port.

Check out their website and enjoy a great day.

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Erlend Geerts October 4, 2013 at 7:46 am

Hi Judy,

Thanks a lot for sharing.

Erlend

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David Franke November 3, 2013 at 2:20 pm

I am staying at a university guesthouse near Y station, in the Ankara section of the city. I really wanted to check out the Turkish Baths, and found Sofalar Hamami within walking distance, here: http://goo.gl/maps/NtI90. They were very accustomed to tourists, writing down the amounts and “packages” that I could opt for. I went for the whole shebang, and it set me back 48 TL, which seemed good. With tip, 53 TL. You walk in, pay, and they show you to a little room and give you a wrap. I got naked, hung up my clothes, wrapped myself and stepped out, locking the door (with my passport!) behind me. All was of course fine when I returned, too. They tell you what to do and where to go.The first step is the heating up process in a big room; then another room for a hard scrub and rinse, pans of hot, lukewarm, and cool water dashed over me. Then a perfunctory “massage” — probably out have paid less and skipped that. Not sure where one would “hang out” after: without Turkish to speak, chatting is sort of pointless. But the experience was great. I’d do it again. BTW, went on a Sunday morning and no women were anywhere in view; I think they’d be to of place there.

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dc boulder February 12, 2014 at 2:34 am

I visited a hamam in Cappadocia and had a wonderful time. It was about 2007 and the hamam was very newly built. It was off-season and the place had literally zero customers except my GF and me. We were allowed to bathe together wearing as little as we wanted. Had the whole place to ourselves and it was great! We were there about 2 hours and I could have spent even more. My GF refused to be scrubbed or massaged by the hairy burly dude who was the only masseur on duty that day. Later she told the manager it was unfair that there was no female masseur for her, and received a partial refund without a problem. (I massaged her instead, so she did get a full experience!)

It seems silly to have to go to Turkey for a good hamam. Who can recommend a more-or-less authentic hamam anywhere in the states???

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Norman Brown February 15, 2014 at 11:55 am

I used to live in Turkey for 2 years and have been to Hamams in Istanbul and Adana. the experience was great. Mine was an all male sauna and it was very relaxing and comfortable. I drank chai and drank a yogurt mixed drink. The masseurs were very thorough and very relaxing. Everyone should try it at least once.

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Steve Dolphin March 10, 2014 at 9:47 am

Great guide that allowed me to have some idea of what to expect.

My cousin and I went to Ayasofya Hamami, knowing it would be more touristy and therefore more expensive but we were okay with that as first timers, we wanted a little hand holding.

I paid for the basic package which I thought was 80tl but was actually €80, which translated to 234tl, so I was a little shocked at the cost but continued. Inside was great, little changing area with lockers that you set a pin on, you get naked, wrap yourself with the supplied wrap, go warm up and then get the skin rub/peel, soapy massage/wash, washed and shampooed then dried. It was all great. I tipped 20tl which was about 10% to the guy who washed me.

My cousin has a near identical version on the female side which was really good because some places seem to care less about the women’s experience, this was the same for both of us!

Also it wasn’t made very clear to me that I should have been dousing myself with water in the first room so to be clear, those wraps are meant to get wet!

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Melinda Bailey-Taylor September 20, 2014 at 10:34 am

I had a wonderful Turkish bath at the Kolin Hotel in Canakkale last night and my masseur was male. Sensational first experience of a traditional Turkish bath, and I still feel totally rejuvenated from it today. Fellow travellers, who didn’t know that I’d had the bath, commented this morning on how well I looked! My skin is still feeling so soft, which is most welcome after days of sun while walking the ruins of Turkey. Thoroughly recommend the experience, whether male or female masseur – really, who cares? You’re never going to see each other again, so enjoy the authentic experience while you can.

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